issue 4

The High Witch of Westham, by Tom Jolly

Margaret Appleheart remembered her father tossing her into the air, exclaiming how light she was, as though she were part of the air herself. When she was slightly older, she remembered being carried on his back when they went to town, held in place by her father’s hands to keep her from blowing away. As a teen, she learned to carry rocks in her pockets to hold herself down, or she tended to drift from step to step instead of plodding along the dirt or mud roads like most of the worn-out folk of Westham. Her father explained the need for her to hide her ability: “My little angel, you’re different from the others, and people will hate you for that.”

“But why?” she asked. “I’m not doing anything wrong.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “The fact you are different will be enough to feed their anger and fear. It’s why they all dress the same—those who stand out at all are persecuted by the rest.”

“Not everyone is like that, are they?”

He grunted sourly. “Enough of them are to cause trouble. They’ll call you a witch, and brand you as an evil spirit.”

She looked down at her feet. “But all I do is float.”

Her father shrugged. “There’s no sense to it, angel.”

She didn’t like carrying rocks in her pockets when she could avoid it and learned to walk with a smooth, level gait to avoid bouncing into the air, thus precluding the need for the extra weight.

Most of the time, she kept to the small cottage she rented, working as a seamstress, waiting for jobs to come her way so that she wasn’t out in the public eye, and could use props around her work area to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground. Besides her customers, she also needed to hide her ability from her friends, especially Georges Lecroix, who seemed to have some new tear in his clothing every week, dropping by with small carved gifts and spending far too much time there to be just another customer. She always knew when he arrived in the small shop; his leather boots clomped loudly on her wooden floorboards as though he weighed twice what he appeared: a somewhat slender man of average height. One day, she thought, I will need to tell him my secret. Surely he wouldn’t hate me for it.

The rest of the community was a much different matter. In the small town of Westham, in the state of Massachusetts, they hadn’t burned or hanged or stoned or pressed witches for many decades, and at the late date of 1777, it seemed unlikely that they might start again, but it was never far from the public mind, just as her father had warned. Some women were just too pretty, or too smart, or too full of themselves to give the men of the town the respect and attention they felt they deserved; thus, logic dictated that they must be witches. Certain other women in town thought that these hussies were giving their men far too much attention, with their standoffishness and aloof nature a blatant attempt at flirtation—a subtle spell of seduction by playing hard-to-get. So, once again, witchcraft must have been involved.

Such petty simmering thoughts might have come to a boil, creating any amount of unrest between the sexes, if the town of Westham didn’t actually get a real witch to distract them from their basest urges and jealousies.

Margaret was shopping for bread and cheese and a variety of herbs, fruit, and vegetables at the town square open-air market on a summer day. Her laden basket of goods normally kept her feet soundly upon the Earth, but today she felt lighter, freer on her feet, until she was drifting from market stall to market stall on her tip-toes, barely gaining enough traction to move forward, feeling a little dreamy and distracted, and hardly aware that she was almost floating. Whatever this strange bud of ability was that lived within her, it had chosen this day to blossom fully into a flower.

After buying a small block of cheddar, Margaret peddled air trying to move forward and found her effort hindered by the lack of a connection to the Earth below her. She frowned, then glanced around in a panic to see if anyone had perceived her predicament. Her eyes came to rest on Percy Scarby’s earnest, weaselly face. The man’s attention was known to wander when his wife’s back was turned, and his undesirable interest had strayed to Margaret’s shapely hovering ankles. Now, his eyes were wide. He gaped silently like a fish and finally clutched his wife’s shoulder, pointing. “Look!” he shouted.

His wife turned, and, barely a moment after seeing the levitated shoes on the comely feet of Margaret Appleheart, screamed, “Witch!”

At this point, Margaret knew she had a problem.

“Get her!” yelled Percy, then tried to put into action his own words, but was obstructed by the simultaneous reaction of Georges Lecroix, who awkwardly lunged toward Margaret in a similar attempt to grab her, ending in a tangled thicket of limbs with Percy. Something cracked, and Percy howled.

Margaret tried uselessly to back away but again found little traction. She was confused and disheartened. Hadn’t Georges been hanging around her shop, sweet-talking, giving her little gifts, wooing her in his own awkward way? Could something this small turn him? He certainly looked angry—but was that anger aimed at Percy or at her?

Percy’s wife Constance also made a lunge for Margaret, but Margaret slapped her hand away as she grabbed at her skirt, in the process rising even further into the air. Others came for her, but, with an urgent thought of retreat, she shot upward another six feet, where the shoppers and merchants could jump all they wished without reaching her.

“Witch, witch, witch!” some of the people chanted with dark hatred in their eyes, while others just watched curiously. Percy said to anyone who might listen, “Get a rope, we can pull her down!”

“And then we can hang her!” Constance added.

Not a few of the others stared at her, and one woman asked, “And how would that work if she doesn’t fall down?”

Not to be ridiculed or corrected, Constance corrected herself, “Knock her on the head, then hang her!”

A merchant approached with a stout length of rope, skillfully and quickly tying a loop in the end so as to snag Margaret’s ankle, and Margaret wondered why the assembled mob thought she would remain there to be lassoed.

She rose another twenty feet into the air, attaining a bird’s-eye view of the market and the small town, watching as dozens of people came streaming toward the market square from their homes and businesses as word spread of her sudden elevation within the community.

“Fetch Barlow!” one man said to his son, who darted away, and Margaret remembered that Barlow was a hunter and an archer, and would undoubtedly be encouraged to bring his longbow with him. She’d observed the man’s skill with a bow during contests at the summer festival, and so rose even higher into the sky, though still burdened with her shopping basket nearly full of food. At the same time, she tried to use whatever this strange ability was to move sideways, away from the angry and curious masses below, but failed. It was just up and down, like climbing an invisible ladder.

Well, up was a certainty. Down, she wasn’t completely or even partly sure about, so she tried pushing earthward and found it difficult to move that direction. She could move upward, but not downward. She was stuck in the sky on a one-way invisible ladder.

She knew that if she continued upward, she would eventually reach Heaven, but she was not quite ready to give up her earthly ties for eternal bliss, which she imagined might be cold and windy, and, based on the sermons from the pastor, probably boring.

Barlow finally showed up, though she could hardly tell that it was him as only the top of his black hat was visible from her viewpoint. But he looked up at her and she could finally see his scruffy black beard wagging at her and his beady eyes squinting against the bright sun. Then Barlow let fly one of his deadly shafts. It slowed as it approached her, tapped lightly against her skirt as though checking to make sure she was really there, and fell back to Earth.

In short order, a few of the men brought out their muskets, loaded, and took aim, but none of the balls whizzing past came closer to her than ten feet. Their accuracy at this distance was mostly a matter of luck and wishful thinking, but given enough time and patience, one might accidentally find her, so she went even higher, where she could see the balls turn around to punish those observers foolish enough to stand directly below.

The people cursing at her from the street and shop windows seemed no more than small dots now. Margaret wished she could drop rocks on them, fully aware that she would never live among them again, or sew for them, and the little cottage she rented would most likely be ransacked within the next hour, her few books and sewing materials and quilts on which she’d labored for so many weeks distributed amongst the pretentious vermin cursing at her from far below.

Angry with the mob, she lifted her skirt and petticoats enough to prevent them from getting wet and she let loose, noting with satisfaction that the air was as still as death, and anything she dropped would most certainly find its way back to the ground, or the gaping mob, directly below her.

The air remained still, the Sun was setting, and Margaret was too warm. She’d been hanging in the air for hours above the same spot, becalmed, nibbling on an apple from the basket she still carried and wondering how long this was going to last. She spat the seeds into the air, hoping they would find targets below. Where was the wind? And would it blow her toward the mountains, or across the river to the sea? How would she get down?

Night fell, and but for a few torches below, darkness enclosed her. Most of the townspeople went home, but a few stayed to watch and wait for her to come down, ready to capture her when the time came. The basket of food was heavy, so she tied it to her apron, though it pulled awkwardly and tilted her forward. She considered just dropping the entire basket, hopefully braining one of the watchers below, but it might be the only food she would get for a long time.

An owl flew past, circled her curiously, and flew away, hooting into the night as though warning others away from the peculiar floating object.

As it got colder, she pulled off her skirt, struggling to remove it from beneath the apron, then wrapped it around her shoulders like a blanket, depending on two layers of petticoats to keep her legs warm.

She fell asleep with only the sky as her bed.

Margaret gasped as she was jerked awake and looked down. Georges was less than ten feet below. “Quiet!” he hissed. He was holding one end of the piece of rope they’d brought earlier to pull her down. The other end was looped around her ankle with a slip-knot, and Georges was pulling on it, dragging her quickly through the air. They were some fifty yards from the town center on the road west. Georges was running as best he could under the circumstances, and all the food from her basket had tumbled out.

“I came down!” she whispered excitedly.

“Oui, you did, now hush.”

“Where are the others?”

“I brought whiskey to the night watchmen to help keep their bellies warm. They’re asleep. And you came down a good distance from the market, unseen. It’s after midnight.”

Margaret thought this over. “You tripped Percy on purpose.”

“Of course I did.” Georges stopped for a moment, listening. “There’s someone ahead,” he said softly. He stepped into a narrow alley. Margaret clutched the edge of the roof shingles above him to still herself.

Two men walked past in the street, both carrying lanterns: one with a cudgel and one with a rope, but they didn’t see Georges or Margaret. When they were once again surrounded by shadows, Georges stepped back out into the street and headed into the darkness. Martha let go of the roof shingles reluctantly, and one clattered to the ground.

The two men spun around at the noise. “It’s her!” one cried. They put down their lanterns and charged toward them. Georges tried to run, towing Margaret, but she slowed him. “Let me go!” she shouted at him, but by the time the sense of her words registered, the men arrived, the larger one swinging at Georges with his cudgel and the other leaping for the rope which had fallen from Georges’ grip. Margaret rose only a few feet into the air before she was yanked back down again. Georges swung a fist at his attacker and missed, and Margaret watched, helpless, as Georges was felled with a single blow to the head.

The witch burning was set for nightfall. The witch-haters far outnumbered Margaret’s sewing customers, and her acquaintances were hard-put to step forward and declare her innocence when they might next be called to the stake for consorting with a known witch.

Georges was locked in a pillory not far from where the stake and bonfire were set up, so he would be forced to watch the unfortunately talented witch burn. The town hadn’t quite decided what to do with him; he worked for the shipbuilder at the river dock and had many friends who were reluctant to murder him. They argued that he, in fact, was a victim who had been seduced by the witch, and that watching her burn might purge her evil control over him.

It was July 4th, 1777. In other nearby towns, celebrations were occurring. Bonfires were lit, sans witch, to mark the anniversary of their Independence Day. Bells rang miles away, the peal carried over the trees by a light wind like ghostly chimes.

Where was this bloody wind yesterday? Margaret thought, tied securely to the stake at the center of the town square. I could have blown away to safety. She wriggled. The bonds securing her were tight, the coarse rope abrading her skin.

Percy, given the honor of lighting the bonfire since he’d discovered the witch’s lurking presence among them, approached the pile of tinder at her feet with a burning torch in his right hand. His other arm was splinted and held in a sling. “Any last words, witch?”

“I would like to say—” she began.

Percy tossed the torch onto the tinder. “Nobody actually cares,” he said, then turned and walked away toward the anxious crowd.

She struggled harder against the ropes. The tinder caught quickly, the flames licking at her skirts.

She glanced over at Georges and could see him struggling within the pillory as he shouted at her, “Fly, Margaret. Lift the stake!”

Lift the stake? That was insane. But at least worth the attempt; she’d lifted the basket full of food without trying at all. Her flaming skirts gave an extra impetus to her thoughts, and she desperately urged herself upward. The stake wobbled back and forth, then slowly rose into the sky, where, to her dismay, she discovered that the post hadn’t been secured into the hard ground at all, but set upon a tee of crossed posts. These, in turn, retained a substantial portion of the small pitch-coated sticks laid around the base of the post, lifting them into the air, too, along with the fire. It was a strain, though, and she could feel it as though she were carrying a half-dozen bolts of burlap to her tiny cottage, the ropes biting into her skin. This flaming rocket crawled into the air, accelerating, fires bending away from her as she thrust upward, until the high wind found her, pushing her westward, raining flaming sticks across the dry shingles covering most of the town’s rickety buildings.

It was a fireworks display to remember. She rose a thousand feet into the air, the rush of wind keeping the worst of the flames from her skin, but her clothing still afire. Adjacent towns in the weeks to follow would exclaim about the giant skyrocket that Westham had produced to celebrate Independence Day.

The unexpected weight of the pole that had been holding her up loosened her bonds, and the shaft slid out from the ropes, splinters lodging in her skin and clothing as it plunged downward, a flaming sword skewering the wooden roof of the town hall, setting the entire structure ablaze.

Margaret cast away the loose ropes and tore off her flaming clothes, painfully burning her skin and hands. She would have stayed and watched the chaos below as the townspeople who had so recently turned on her ran to put out the scattered fires as the warm wind whipped them into small furies, but the wind blew her away toward the west, where she knew she would eventually be pushed into MacKearney Ridge, just a few miles distant.

The last thing she saw below was a red-faced Georges, gritting his teeth as the pillory bent downward and cracked, the boards splitting wide, his body pulling free, then slamming hard into the ground, a thick cloud of dust obscuring him.

How had he become so strong? Or the wood so weak? But the rest of the town was too busy to notice. She saw him move away in the smoky shadows toward the stables as she followed the wind into the night.

Margaret heard the thump of horse hooves below her first, then a shout: “Margaret? Margaret!”

“I’m here, Georges!” she called out. The ground had come closer as the foothills rose toward the ridge and the wind continued to push her westward. She was over a hundred yards from a broad unnamed trail that ran the same direction, and still over a hundred feet high. The wind would send her into the treetops before the ground came close, and soon. The pines were tall here.

“I can see you now!” he shouted. And, she realized, there was, indeed, enough moonlight not only to allow him to ride the horse along the dark trail, but also to illuminate her pale naked form drifting through the sky. As soon as she touched the tips of the trees, she grabbed one and pulled herself into the shadows of its branches.

“I’m climbing down a tree,” she shouted. “Did you bring any clothing?”

“I brought a nightshirt that I wear to bed. Sadly, there isn’t a surplus of women’s clothing in my room.”

“A man’s shirt and breeches would have served well enough,” she said.

“I was in a hurry, as you might guess. The woman I love was floating away, and I didn’t wish to lose her.”

She felt herself blush in the dark as she climbed lower, breaking off a few small branches as she went with which to cover herself. “Love, is it?”

“Did you doubt?” he asked.

She reached the lowest branch and sat on it, modestly holding the small broken branches before her, just as Georges jumped off his horse. “Throw me the nightshirt and turn around,” she said.

She could see him grinning even in the moonlit shadows, but he pulled the nightshirt out of the saddle pack, threw it to her, and turned around to face his horse. “Are you all right?” he asked. “It looked like you were on fire from below.”

“A little singed and a few splinters to pull out, I think. A bit of salve and a pair of tweezers, perhaps a few stitches, and I should be as good as new.” She dropped the branches and wriggled into the nightshirt, then climbed the rest of the way down the tree and picked up the branches to give her a little weight. She stepped up behind Georges. “You can turn around, now.”

He turned around and she planted a kiss square upon his lips, which he returned. After a moment, she backed up, waving the branches while the white nightshirt flapped in the breeze like a ghost. There were twigs stuck in her hair. “I suppose I can’t return to town.”

Georges laughed. “Certainement pas. You set the town center on fire! Their angry vengeful witch cast spells to burn their town to the ground. If they disliked you enough to burn you at the stake for hovering like a beautiful hummingbird, then I imagine that burning down their town hall will not put them in better spirits.”

The branches flopped to her side. “Then I have no place to go.”

“I suppose that would be true for me, also, since I tried to save you.” He looked thoughtful for a few seconds, then said, “I have a friend in Arlentown, twenty miles north from here. He will give us some supplies. From there, we can ride northeast to Boston. One of my sisters lives there and she can put you up until you’re settled. You’re good at what you do. I do not doubt that you will soon find work.”

She looked down at herself, then back up at him questioningly.

Georges laughed. “My friend will loan you some clothes if you don’t mind dressing as a man.”

“That’s yet another sign of being a witch, I think.”

“Well, then, the clothes will be fitting, won’t they?”

She made a sour face at the quip. Georges mounted the large horse, then offered his hand to lift her up behind the cantle, where she settled in place like a feather. She wrapped her arms around his waist, and Georges lifted the reins. As he turned the horse back onto the moon-dappled trail, he said, “You know, it seems a waste to have such an ability as yours and not use it.”

“I would be accused of witchcraft anywhere I let it be known,” she said.

“Boston has too many people to worry about such nonsense,” he said. “They are too preoccupied complaining of the smell of the factories.”

“You’ve seen me fly. How could you not think me a witch?”

The Percheron thumped down the path, carrying the two of them with apparent ease. “The first time I saw you move, I thought we were made for one another. And once I talked to you and became familiar with you, I was certain of it.”

Margaret sighed and leaned into him, her cheek resting on his back. He seemed as solid as a wall.

Georges smiled. Behind them, the moonlit floor of the forest showed pine needles barely stirred by Margaret’s toes skimming above them, and deep, dark indentations of a man’s boots as though a bear had filled them.

Tom Jolly is a retired engineer who spends his time writing SF and fantasy, designing board games, and creating obnoxious puzzles. His stories have appeared in Analog SF, Daily Science Fiction, Compelling Science Fiction, New Myths, and a number of anthologies. His fantasy novels, An Unusual Practice and Touched, are available from Amazon, in addition to a few collections of short stories. He lives in Santa Maria, California, with his wife Penny in a place where mountain lions and black bears still visit. You can discover more of his stories at his website.

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